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A pastoral letter on the gospel, race, and the church

In light of the racial violence and tension that has surfaced in our country, our Senior Pastor Abraham Cho wrote this pastoral letter to our congregation to share his thoughts on what the Bible says about racial injustice as well as propose a way forward for us as a church.

July, 2020

Dear Redeemer East Side,

The last several weeks have been incredibly painful, infuriating, and overwhelming. The horrific, unjust killing of George Floyd and the protests it has sparked have reopened a festering wound in our nation that clearly has never been adequately addressed, much less healed. The sins of racial injustice and oppression are not confined to atrocities committed in our nation’s past; they are sins that remain sedimented and entrenched in our institutions and culture today. They daily impact our lives, our neighbors, and the city we love. The enormous complexity of these issues yields a bewildering variety of perspectives which can not only be difficult to make sense of, but also elicits deep emotional and personal responses. These are not abstract issues. They involve real bodies and real lives. If you are like me, you have been asking God: “What does this all mean? How should I respond? How can we be part of a solution rather than perpetuating the problem?”

My hope is to share with you what I believe the Bible says about racial injustice, with the hope that these convictions might serve as theological anchors to help us make sense of these issues. These convictions represent years of searching Scripture, wrestling in prayer, and listening to dear brothers and sisters in Christ of all kinds of ethnic backgrounds. I offer them not as a final authority—far from it. Instead, I offer them in love as your brother, pastor, and co-laborer in the gospel, hoping they might help shepherd us through some of these difficult and crucial topics. A single letter can’t possibly address the complexity of these issues. Yet, I hope that it might be a first step in our commitment to learning as a church family.

First, Scripture is clear that racial hostility is a gospel issue first, not a political one. The gospel Paul preached was the good news of a double peace achieved by Christ—peace with God through grace alone and peace with one another in a new, reconciled body (Eph. 2:14-16). These two forms of peace, though distinct, are inseparable. To preach one without the other is to betray the very mystery of Christ itself (Eph. 3:6). Other biblical examples abound: Peter realizing that no one is unclean (Acts 10), Jesus asking a Samaritan woman for a drink (John 4), and Paul publicly rebuking Peter of his racism (Gal. 2). In our day, the issue of racial injustice has been so harmfully co-opted by political agendas (on both the left and the right), that the essential theological nature of this issue has become tragically obscured to us. These issues—and the leadership they require—must be reclaimed by the church.

Second, Scripture affirms that the work of racial repentance, justice, and reconciliation is part of the very vocation of the church. Because the cross alone secures our union with Christ and union with one another (Gal. 3:28), the church is the God-ordained place where the work of truth-telling, repentance, justice, and reconciliation must be done. This was the clear conclusion of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), the first council of the church and the only one with full Scriptural authority. The Council of Jerusalem was convened not to address what we might call a “theological” controversy. It was convened to address racial division in the church. Its conclusion was clear: racial division threatens the very gospel itself. This was urgently true then and remains urgently true today. Therefore, to begin to speak with greater moral clarity and urgency on these issues is not the church being swept up into a cultural moment. It is the church waking up to its own calling to be the locus of God’s double reconciliation on earth. It is the church rising up to live out the Great Commandment to love God with heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:36-40). Dismantling racism in our hearts, in the structures of our church, and in the systems of the world is a matter of gospel discipleship, not worldly “social activism.” The gospel alone—and the church that bears witness to its truth—has the power to heal our divisions.

Third, Scripture presents a God who, far from being colorblind, delights in the diversity of his creation. Genesis 1 describes a God who creates by introducing difference into a formless void. We see a creation burgeoning with diversity and teeming with potential for even more. In electing Abraham and the people of Israel, God chooses one ethnic group in order to send them back into the world for the salvation of every tribe, tongue, and nation (Gen. 12). At Pentecost we see a God who, rather than homogenizing human language, preserves linguistic difference even when it would mean that the message of eternal salvation itself would have to be translated (Acts 2). The final vision of worship is not one in which ethnic particularity is homogenized; it is a multitude of tribes, nations, and tongues bringing their cultural distinctiveness to Christ in worship (Rev. 7). Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman and the first person in Scripture to give God a name, put it powerfully: “You are the God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13). He saw her in all her beautiful particularity; he sees us in the same way. So, when we read in Galatians 3:28 that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” it cannot mean that the gospel wipes out all human difference. No, it means that the gospel rightly orders our differences, reconfiguring them around our identity in Christ. After all, the God in whose image we are made is himself a mysterious unity of eternal difference. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father; yet they are one. Therefore, the church is not called to be color blind. It is called to dance in the richness of our God-given differences. We begin to do that when we listen to our brothers and sisters who are different from us, especially when they are crying out in the face of injustice. We learn to love one another not in spite of our differences, but because of them.

Fourth, therefore, to tell the truth about racism in the church, far from being divisive, is essential to “maintaining the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). The word “maintain” implies an active upkeep, a tending, and a guarding. So, it is a mistake to equate the unity of the Spirit with the mere absence of conflict. Where there is division and injustice, the task of maintaining the unity of the Spirit can require the work of a surgeon: inflicting discomfort, even cutting pain, to bring about true healing for all. The pain inflicted is not an attack on what is good; it is the extracting of the disease that ails us. Where there is injustice, to deny the cries of our brothers and sisters in the name of unity is to promote a counterfeit and damaging “peace.” Therefore, speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) is essential to the true unity that brings glory to God.

Fifth, the Bible affirms that sin is personal, systemic, corporate, and demonic in nature. Sin pervades every corner of every human heart—its motivations, attitudes, and actions. It encompasses sins of commission, where we act out of sinful motivations, as well as sins of omission, where we fail to act when righteousness demands it. Yet the Bible doesn’t allow us to reduce sin to individual heart motivations. Sin is a moral and spiritual force that has pervaded all of creation (Rom 8:19-22). Our doctrine of total depravity (Rom. 3:10) tells us that sin, far from remaining contained in the motivational structures of individual hearts, stains everything we touch and build. Therefore, to deny that human systems can carry injustice in its structures, intentionally or unintentionally, is to have a deficiently individualized view of depravity. The Bible also teaches that sin has a corporate dimension—that the unrepented sins of a people are carried with them and later generations are held responsible (Lev. 26:40-42, Josh. 7, Neh. 9-10, Dan. 9, et. al.). Colossians 2:8-22 teaches that sin also has a demonic dimension, which becomes especially evident when human evil becomes embedded in our traditions, philosophies, and legal regulations. This is why “just preaching the gospel” while necessary, is insufficient. Where sin becomes embedded into our structures, repentance requires institutional reform (Acts 6:1-7). We must dismantle structures that perpetuate injustice and keep us divided. After all, this battle is not against flesh and blood (Eph. 6:12).

Sixth, the Bible not only affirms the “why” and the “what” of racial justice, it prescribes the “how.” To paraphrase human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, the gospel shows us that it is when justice is administered with mercy that it truly becomes justice. At the center of the gospel is God freely taking our misery and making it his own. He took our flesh and died in our place, all while we were still his enemies. He left his place of privilege to pay the terrible price to make us whole. The Incarnation was God’s freely chosen act of solidarity with us. One of the uniquely Christian contributions to the quest for dismantling of racism in our society is to do the mission of Christ in the manner of Christ. Therefore, the “how” for attaining justice and reconciliation requires solidarity with one another in the body of Christ and must always remain truthful, loving, and non-violent. To be clear, this is not to say righteous anger and indignation have no place. God is worthy of worship precisely because he is indignant at evil and makes no peace with injustice. Instead, it is to remember the command “In your anger do not sin.” (Eph. 4:26) The most powerful prophetic word is the word of truth that arises out of love.

What does this mean for us as a church? I am convinced that this must be a season of return—a return to the call to be the beautiful, reconciled people of God. It must be a journey marked by intentional openness and listening. We must be willing to listen to one another with curiosity and compassion. It must be a journey of embracing the discomfort of truth and honest self-examination. It must be a journey of hopeful repentance, individually and corporately. How have we failed to live up to this beautiful vision for justice and reconciliation? Where have we remained silent when we should have spoken? Where have we perpetuated divisions rather than healing them? How has our inaction resulted in anguish and harm to our brothers and sisters of color? It is through honest repentance that we will experience newness of life.

To that end, our Session, the board of elders, at Redeemer East Side has started a process of listening, repentance, and reform. We want to hear from brothers and sisters in our church family where we need the healing of repentance. We want to prayerfully examine where we must change and reform to better fulfill the beautiful calling to be God’s beloved community. We want to know how we might emerge deeply, rather than superficially, transformed by the gospel. I earnestly ask for your prayers as we begin that journey. As we listen and discern the Spirit’s leading, we will communicate to you the specific changes we believe God is calling us to.

In all things, as the body of Christ, we are called to embody these words from Philippians 2:

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

I pray that as we journey back to our calling as the reconciled people of God, the Spirit would make these words true of you, true of me, and true of our entire church body in such a way that we would bring glory to the name of Jesus in a world in search of enduring hope.

With resurrection hope,